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Keene closer to overhaul of land-use codes

The draft of the downtown Keene zoning update is available to view ahead of more public input sessions next week.

The city’s community development department along with consultants have spent the past year and a half reorganizing and updating land-use regulations downtown. The proposed changes would add or change dozens of definitions to the code to fit current land uses, streamline the permitting process and establish new subdistricts under a form-based zoning approach.

The proposal is detailed in a draft ordinance, which will need to be approved and adopted by the City Council before it goes into effect.

In a group interview last month, a handful of the key city staffers working on the project explained the ins and outs.

They say the code hasn’t been overhauled like this in 50 years. Because of that, some terms are outdated — “hawkers and peddlers,” for example, which translates roughly to mobile vendors — and many modern land uses aren’t included.

“So the changes that are being proposed are more definitions and definitions that are more clear,” said Medard K. “Med” Kopczynski, Keene’s economic development director.

As it stands now, the lack of present-day terminology poses logistical problems for both developers and city staff. Modestman Brewing opened on Main Street last month, for instance, and Building and Health Officer John Rogers pointed out that it was approved as a restaurant under the zoning code.

Kopczynski added that, technically, there are no bars or nightclubs in Keene — they’re all restaurants, too.

The draft ordinance includes new and revised definitions for more than 60 land uses. Community Development Director Rhett Lamb said the team tried to find the flaws in the current code and remove unreasonable hurdles.

“We’re trying to adjust all these standards to what people are asking for today and what fits a normal high-quality-of-life community like Keene,” Lamb said. “... So we’re trying to open up our downtown and our zoning generally to the kinds of uses that people want to do.”

Over the past several months, city staff conducted focus groups and met with developers, landlords and other people with a vested interest in the zoning update, including nonprofit social service agencies.

The draft ordinance proposes eight definitions that fall under a “social services/congregate living” use category: domestic violence shelter, drug treatment clinic, food pantry, group home, homeless shelter, residential care facility, residential drug/alcohol treatment facility, and social service center. Most would require a conditional use permit from the city’s planning board to operate in the new subdistricts to which they would be restricted.

One of Keene’s homeless shelters, Hundred Nights Inc. on Lamson Street, has made multiple attempts over the past few years to find a new home, but these efforts stalled in large part because the organization would need a zoning variance to operate in most areas downtown, since it’s designated as a lodging house.

Lamb said that forced fit has made the process much more difficult.

“Hundred Nights got the square peg jammed into the round hole as a lodging house — it’s not really a lodging house,” Lamb said, laughing. “It’s truly a homeless shelter, and so we’re creating a definition for it.”

This falls in line with the goal of making the city’s zoning code easier to understand — more definitions means less wrangling and fewer technicalities for applicants and staff.

Kopczynski said Rogers, who is also the city’s zoning administrator, would have more authority to interpret the code so that, “from a business owner’s standpoint, there should be less bureaucracy and more clarity.”

Rogers noted that another major objective has been to consolidate information and make it easily accessible. As it is now, he explained, details about parking are split up between eight different parts of the code.

Senior City Planner Tara Kessler said it might sound simple to take the land-use regulations and “put them all in one place,” but it would be a marked improvement. Staff is also adding graphics to the code documents and has been diligently checking for contradictions within the city’s ordinances or with state law, she said.

Lamb noted that the zoning update is just one part of an ongoing effort to streamline city services, a project that’s included reorganizing the offices on the fourth floor of City Hall to create the community development department.

Aside from adding definitions and cleaning up the city’s land-use regulations, the project involves one other major aspect: the implementation of form-based zoning.

While traditional zoning focuses on separating uses with districts such as residential, commercial and industrial, form-based zoning instead makes building form the priority, allowing for mixed uses where appropriate in the interest of accomplishing a community’s long-term vision.

With the help of consultants who work with municipalities on similar projects, the team’s proposal would delineate the downtown area and divide it into six subdistricts, each intended to maintain the character of the existing neighborhoods and structures: core, growth, edge, limited, transition and institutional campus.

“If you were over by the edge of Winchester Street over by Ralston Street, that’s a totally different look and feel than Main Street,” Kessler said. “If we want it all to be part of the downtown, we can’t just have one zoning district that provides a set of standards for all of downtown because we wouldn’t have an identity anymore.”

Each subdistrict listed in the draft zoning ordinance includes building form standards, which address lot size, setback, buildout, height and “activation,” or a structure’s entrances and windows. The benefit of form-based zoning, Kessler said, is its ability to preserve what exists in some areas while encouraging growth in others.

While the average Keene resident likely won’t notice any changes if the zoning overhaul is approved, city staff say the updates would make the process easier for new development or anyone seeking to change the use of their existing structure. They also clarified that the update is specific to downtown and would not affect the rest of the city.

Feedback from next week’s public input sessions will be collected and used to make any necessary tweaks to the draft ordinance, which will then go to the City Council for adoption, in a process that could begin as early as January or February.

The public is invited to watch a presentation of the draft during the Dec. 9 joint meeting of the planning board and the council’s planning, licenses and development committee in City Hall’s second-floor council chambers at 6:30 p.m.

There will also be an open studio Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the storefront at 45 Main St., next to Subway, followed by a community workshop in council chambers again at 6:30 p.m.

Cats do have facial expressions, but you probably can't read them

We generally assume a purring cat is a contented cat. It’s safe to say a hissing cat, its ears drawn back, is not pleased.

But aside from the visage of Grumpy Cat — who may not have been grumpy at all — feline faces don’t tell us much about how cats feel. Or rather, as a new study on the topic found, most of us are pretty terrible at reading cats’ expressions.

Cats have a reputation for being “inscrutable,” the researchers say, and their results mostly back up this notion. More than 6,000 study participants in 85 countries, the vast majority of them cat owners, watched brief cat videos and then judged the animals’ moods. The average score was just under 60 percent correct — an F, if cat videos were a school subject.

However, 13 percent of participants did quite well, scoring 75 percent or above. The researchers dubbed these achievers “cat whisperers” — and said their results are important.

“Cats are telling us things with their faces, and if you’re really skilled, you can spot it,” said author Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Some people can do it — that means there’s something there. That means that cats are hard to read,” but not wholly inscrutable, she said.

Women, who made up three-fourths of participants, scored better than men, but not by much. Younger people did better than older people. But the most skilled diviners of feline feelings were people with professional experience involving cats, including veterinarians.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Mason said. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a lot of motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

Scientists have long known that humans greatly depend on smiles, eyebrow raises, furrowed brows and other facial movements to judge how other people feel. Since a 2010 study on the grimace-like faces mice make when in pain, researchers have grown increasingly interested in understanding animal expressions, Mason said.

Several studies have focused on dogs. But Mason and her colleagues located just one peer-reviewed paper on the facial expressions of cats, despite their popularity as pets. That study focused on cats in pain.

“We wanted to know, ‘OK, do they only have pain faces?’ It seems unlikely,” Mason said.

The survey did not require respondents to judge whether cats looked happy, depressed or desperate for tuna, because even the researchers couldn’t determine that. “We’re not Dr. Dolittle,” Mason said.

Instead, survey-takers had to decide whether close-ups of cat faces in short video clips — most from YouTube, some from veterinarians or researchers’ cats — showed “positive” or “negative” expressions. Sounds and surroundings were edited out.

Videos of cats approaching someone or getting something they wanted, such as a treat, were classified as positive. Those showing cats in pain or fleeing were deemed negative. Easy videos — those hissing cats — were excluded. (So were any showing mating, the authors write, “due to the affectively ambiguous nature of feline mating,” which can involve biting by males and other painful elements.)

The use of YouTube videos “ensures cats were behaving in cat-typical ways and gives the conclusions a sense of reality, since these are situations and expressions people may typically encounter with cats,” said Kristyn R. Vitale, who researches cat behavior and cognition but was not involved in the study.

Vitale, who said she takes facial expressions into account “all the time” when interacting with cats at her Oregon State University lab, got a perfect score on a shortened online version of the new study’s survey.

Mason and her colleagues say the results are valuable because people tend to be less bonded to cats than to dogs and treat them more casually. Evidence that cats make expressions that some people can detect could lead to tools that help pet owners and veterinary staff understand cats better, she said. Vitale echoed that.

The fairly poor results, including from cat owners, “indicates a large portion of people may benefit from education in cat body language and facial expression,” Vitale said.

Before that happens, Mason said, she would like to answer other questions. Such as: Just what are the kitties doing with their faces that cat whisperers see — a slight eyelid twitch? A subtle widening of the eye?

“I think the cats really have these consistent facial expressions that probably they’ve evolved,” Mason said. “People are reliably seeing something that is true and valid. But what is it?”

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Major storm turns region white

The first storm of the season Sunday night dumped about a foot of heavy snow on the Monadnock Region, with snowfall predicted to continue into Tuesday morning.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning early Monday morning that remains in effect until Tuesday at 7 a.m. Cheshire, Sullivan and Hillsborough counties are part of the storm’s “target areas,” the warning stated.

Of the area towns with reported snow totals on the weather service’s website, the highest was Rindge with a range of 11.5 to 13 inches, followed by Keene, ranging from 9.8 to 11.1 inches. Marlborough was close behind, with 10.5 inches.

The storm’s effect caused all area schools, colleges and universities to close.

Keene businesses City Express Bus Service, Friendly Bus, Pilot Health and Service Credit Union also closed due to weather Monday.

Six calls for minor car crashes Sunday night were also responded to by dispatchers at Southwest N.H. Fire Mutual Aid, with no injuries reported.

There were also about 10 calls for cars off the road and a handful of cars pulled over for not clearing off their cars, according to Keene Police Lt. Steven Tenney.

Since 2002, New Hampshire residents have been legally required to get snow off their cars before driving.

Jessica’s Law was passed after Jessica Smith was killed when ice from a tractor-trailer hit a box truck that ended up hitting her car.

Drivers who violate the law face fines of $250 to $500 for a first offense and $500 to $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

“[It’s] for everybody’s safety so you can see and you’re not blowing snow on other people’s cars,” Tenney said. “Take it slow and plan ahead of time for the slower commute.”

Additional snow accumulation of 3 to 7 inches is predicted by the National Weather Service. Snow throughout Monday will be light, the service stated, but will get heavier again tonight.

The service’s winter storm warning urges people to stay inside and not travel unless urgent. Those who have to travel should bring an extra flashlight, food and water in their vehicle in case of an emergency, the warning stated.